Language and politics: The use of English "OR" in Chinese official propaganda

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From the weibo of People's Daily  (Rénmín rìbào 人民日報):

Here are all four pairs of questions separated by English "OR":


jūnshì àihàozhě ?OR jiāndié guāncháshào ?

军事爱好者? OR 间谍观察哨?

"Military enthusiasts? OR Spy observation sentinel?"


wǎngluò jiāoyǒu ?OR wǎngluò gōulián ?

网络交友? OR 网络勾连?

"Online dating / friend-making? OR Online colluding?"


xuéshù jiāoliú ?OR qièmì xiànjǐng?

学术交流? OR 窃密陷阱?

"Academic exchange? OR Traps for stealing secrets?"


jiānzhí zīxún ?OR qièmì xiànjǐng?

兼职咨询? OR 窃密陷阱?

"Part-time consulting? OR Traps for stealing secrets?"

I invite Language Log readers to speculate on why the People's Daily editors so emphatically used "OR" instead of the regular Mandarin alternative conjunctions huò 或 and huòzhě 或者. I have several ideas why they did so, but would prefer to hear what others think first before saying what my thoughts are. 

Selected readings

[h.t. Kiewwoo Goh; thanks to Zihan Guo]


  1. yandoodan said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 11:01 am

    What's with the eye patches? Perhaps an anime reference, in which case the English "or" could be an eccentricity of the copied anime. Perhaps an anime that deals with secret anti-China conspiracies, hence its choice for paranoid hysteria.

  2. Tim Leonard said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 11:17 am

    They're not eye patches, though that was my first impression, too. Each face is divided, with half being an innocent smile, the other being a leer with sunglasses (which spies always wear, of course). I note also that the sinister side has a pale skin tone.

  3. Phillip Minden said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 11:23 am

    Google search syntax, as misunderstood by elderly functionaries appealing to those hip youngsters?

  4. Y said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 12:44 pm

    It sounds like an English trope of conspiracy theory–related rhetorical questions. "Coincidence…Or is it?"

  5. Thomas Hutcheson said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 12:44 pm

    The implication is American spying. Part paranoia, part projection.

  6. AntC said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 5:37 pm


    Chinese official propaganda

    I note also that the sinister side has a pale skin tone. (And I note the girl is half-blonde.)

    CCP is accusing Westerners of stealing Chinese secrets? Why would Westerners be doing that?: all those secrets have been stolen from the West.

    (Why would Westerners need secrets like how to make a dam that collapses, or an apartment block that crumbles?)

    I note the Chinese consulate in my city has recently been putting even more razor wire and security cameras around. With lighting on all night that must annoy the neighbours.

  7. Jerry Packard said,

    August 14, 2023 @ 11:07 am

    I think the reason for the OR is to make the disjunction marker appear to be syntactically part of neither phrase to emphasize the disjunction – although you could accomplish that with huò 或 by making the font be different than the font used in each of the phrases.

  8. Ronan Maye said,

    August 14, 2023 @ 11:23 am

    Here are some of my conjectures:
    1) It makes the manga seem modern hence more likely to attract the attention of young people. They might have hired marketers specifically to attract young people's attention rather than brute forcing another government slogan on a poster.
    2) To subtly associate the security threat with the English language, America and/or foreignness
    3) Purely aesthetic, either for:
    a) the visual aesthetics (since it visually divides the text)
    or for the:
    b) sound aesthetics, since we often drag out the r ("orrrr"), which gives a better aural contrast than using 或 in my subjective opinion.

  9. Terry Hunt said,

    August 14, 2023 @ 1:42 pm

    @ AntC
    "CCP is accusing Westerners of stealing Chinese secrets? Why would Westerners be doing that?: all those secrets have been stolen from the West."

    Good God, AntC – what millennium are you living in? I'm no fan of the Chinese regime, being English and an ex-Hong Kong resident (the PLA literally occupy my former apartment), but China is one of the pre-eminent World economic and scientific powers, and in many areas is at least as advanced as anyone.

    Even equal but different solutions to given problems are of interest, and a good deal of espionage worldwide is industrial and commercial, not scientific or military – seeking information not necessarily cutting edge, but of great value to (in this case) non-Chinese rivals.

    Of course many Western countries spy on China, just as China spies on them. Everybody spies on everybody, including their ostensible allies. Wake up and smell the coffee!

    Anyway, much of this sort of thing is aimed at bolstering internal solidarity, rather than countering genuine external threats. Western governments don't have to do it officially – our tabloid presses and unhinged social medias do it for them.

  10. ohwilleke said,

    August 14, 2023 @ 3:32 pm


    The "Or" is in the same font as the initial innocent explanation in both cases, suggesting an association with it.

    Also worth noting that English language instruction in China is almost universal, even though, as in lots of places, the results of these efforts aren't very impressive. Lots of people don't master much English from their instruction, but the very basic conjunction "Or" is probably as widely known in China as very basic words in Spanish routinely used without translation in the U.S.

  11. AntC said,

    August 14, 2023 @ 11:13 pm

    @Terry Probes launched into 100 Chinese chip firms for poaching and design theft and dozens of articles in the same vein — search for "taiwan semiconductor expertise stolen by PRC".

    So I apologise for being imprecise above. I'm usually careful to distinguish PRC from 'Chinese'. Taiwan is not stealing the West's semiconductor secrets: TSMC is partnering with U.S.-led expertise, under properly regulated intellectual property licences.

    Earlier this year Taiwan passed legislation to penalise any citizen sharing commercial secrets with PRC/going to work in the Mainland.

    (But this is LanguageLog not PRC-racketeering Log, so I'll stop there.)

  12. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 15, 2023 @ 5:07 pm

    As for OR, shtylz I guess. As for "instead of […] huò 或 and huòzhě 或者," that's Chinese grammar.
    And yeah whatever the moral calculus, CIA etc actually engage in operations like those pictured in the PRC, duh — "just because you're paranoid," yadayada.

  13. David Marjanović said,

    August 17, 2023 @ 9:49 am

    Everybody spies on everybody, including their ostensible allies. Wake up and smell the coffee!

    I've heard (well, read) a lot of Americans say that, but most of Germany, Merkel herself included, was genuinely shocked when the scandal broke that the US was spying on Germany. Obama's popularity took a deep and long-lasting hit, and Germany almost gave asylum to Edward Snowden.

  14. Sanchuan said,

    September 8, 2023 @ 7:11 pm

    Of course, OR is quite clearly disjunctive here and thus stands for 还是, not 或者.

    Surprised no-one's picked up on that. Is it the weak assonance between English "or" and Pinyin "huo" that's fooled everyone?

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